Ah, yes, secret societies. Cool. I love to talk about secret societies. But there's only one problem -- if you discuss details of a secret society, it doesn't stay very . . . ah, secret.
This is one of the reasons all incarnations of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting rules have featured the "big" and not-so-secret power groups -- That is, the ones folk across Faerûn gossip about: the Zhents, the Red Wizards, the Harpers, the Cult of the Dragon, and suchlike.
Their details, membership, and specific aims and operations may well be secret (and learning or talking about them deadly), but their existence and general thrust or attitudes are "known" to all (I say "known" in quotes because of exaggerations, deliberately spread false rumors, and the like that make Faerûnians know a lot of incorrect things about lurking forces.
But there's another sort of secret society that we can't spotlight in the rules for the very reason I unfurled at the outset: We ruin its secrecy by talking about it. These small, local, lowdown cabals of crooked merchants are a vital, ongoing, many-layered (as in "You shouldn't have just one at a time") part of the "home" Forgotten Realms campaign, and in many, many lively, long-running D&D campaigns set in any world. They're just the thing for framing or hiring PCs and plunging them throat-deep into unexpected and usually unwanted adventure.
I'm not talking huge sprawling conspiracies here. Something more along the lines of a few locally prominent old money families who've arranged some smuggling or fencing of stolen goods or tax fiddling skullduggery to their own advantage and have enriched a few other local accomplices to carry such covert activities on -- and made sure they've hired a few thieves and slayers-by-stealth to take care of anyone who turns traitor or uncovers their little plots.
Add to the mix the PCs, who have arrived in the area and perhaps bought a stronghold. Add a second dirty little conspiracy -- perhaps this one is an entrepreneur who's started a caravan-guarding business to augment his sluggish wagon-making shop and discovers some outlaws hiding in the nearby hills. They're starving and staring a hard winter in the face and agree to become the "pet" local brigand danger that is attacking all travel that isn't under guard by the entrepreneur's forces. They start to do so, staging one or two dramatic "driven off by the brave entrepreneur's guards" mock attacks and a lot of real ones, and two things happen: Folks who've suffered losses start to try to hire the PCs as escorts, and the brigands trample on the activities of the first conspiracy (say, smuggling). There are murders and kidnappings, someone suspects or tries to frame one or more of the PCs (as "recently arrived troublemakers") for some of these unfortunate occurrences, and the local authorities (the watch, or the soldiery, or even trade agents/spies of the local ruler) start to keep a watch on the PCs, trying to catch them at any illegal activities (hacking at other people who attack them first, for instance).
Time to add the third secret society. These will be the comic relief. They migh be, say, a bunch of retired adventurers and local bigwigs who want to get to the bottom of all the recent local troubles. They meet, and with the aid of wine and a lot of tall-tale-telling, they persuade themselves that they are the ideal folk to deliver the community from all harm. They adopt a grand name (The Nighthawk Masks), a salute and several pass-phrases ("There's blood on the moon this night, neighbor."/"My potatoes turneth blue; yours too?"), a uniform (the masks, which effectively disguise no one), and start to creep about in large, enthusiastic, well-armed and utterly incompetent groups by night, blundering into legitimate business and dark work alike with noisy chaos. Plenty of opportunities for both tragedy and low comedy -- for example, the young local lad and lass, deeply in love, who arrange to meet under the moon at some landmark or other, are pounced on by the Nighthawks, and chased (with lots of crashings and screams and yellings) right into the heart of some smuggling work, rousing the local guards to join the chase and chasing the terrified young lovers right into the brigand lair . . . and awakening the PCs in the process, in such a way that every one of them knows that they're going to be blamed for the whole night's chaos.
Okay, a little over the top, but it'll be fun once and can serve as spice to a lot of grimmer, darker, and more dangerous intrigue. Pompous nobles with twirling mustaches and passions for collecting pink porcelain frogs and other oddities -- and who happen to have extensive secret passages in their mansions -- are another "fun" ingredient in such play.
The point is that secret societies can add ongoing mystery to straightforward hacking and doing things by force.
In a recent "New Adventures of Volo" Dragon Magazine article I introduced a sample specimen of one of these tiny secret societies, but ideally each DM should craft her own. They work best if the DM has already detailed many local merchants, rustics, and petty officials in play, and then slowly and subtly (after a more obvious tip-off incident) introduces little odd happenings and overheard snatches of conversation that will lead PCs into realizations that old Baerngarth the Butcher must be rather more than he seems, and Imrisk Theln the Tailor is making rather a lot of moonlit trips to the next village, isn't he?
We can't include these little local secrets in the new book without ruining them, but I hope these few words inspire some of you to create your own!
Go to the March Realmswatch main page for more of information about secret societies in the new Forgotten RealmsCampaign Setting or the Forgotten Realms main news page for more articles and news about the Forgotten Realms game setting.